No matter the skits, album covers, or packaging, Busta Rhymes songs remain primarily receptacles for Busta’s inexhaustible energy. He’s a hypertechnical MC, with a grab-bag of flows and cadences so bottomless that he seems to hear six potential songs in each beat. He played drums as a kid, and when he auditioned for Chuck D with Leaders of the New School, he played the kit while Charlie and Dinco D rhymed. “My flows got so much rhythm, substitute the drummer,” he spits on the first verse of “The Whole World Looking At Me,” and no rapper has ever rapped more like a percussionist. The freedom and joy of Busta’s rhyming came from a sense that he could pick up any part of the beat, any pattern, and run with it as far as he wanted to. In his mouth, words aren’t words—they’re snare heads.
The flip side of this is that when you examine his words on a page, you’re sometimes left with a transcribed drum solo. For every line that squiggles beautifully across your eardrum—“Ha-ha, laugh at ya, oh, me and my passengers/Flip-ass niggas over quick like frying pan spatulas,” from the title track”—there is a clunker like, “While you coughing I be flossing like a fucking dolphin,” or a puff of hot air like, “Rhymin’ Rastas eating enough exotic pasta.”
The best songs on When Disaster Strikes… don’t try to burden Busta with irrelevancies like concepts, narratives, guest hooks, or context. “Rhymes Galore” gives him a rubbery sample and a canvas bright enough to suit him, and then clears the decks. Over a flip of Rufus Thomas’s “Do the Funky Penguin,” he pogos off every available space, saying—what? Nothing, anything, everything. He yells “Jumpin Jehovah’s Witness” and rhymes “ampere” with “chandelier.” The hook—“Rhymes galore! Rhymes galore! Rhymes galore!”—is also the message. It hints at the anarchic album artist he might have been, more intriguing and subversive than what he eventually became.
Rap was growing darker, lonelier, the stakes getting higher. The consummate survivor, Busta was intent on keeping up, so he got tougher. On “Things We Be Doing for Money,” Busta does his best version of Life After Death-style street opera, full of merciless bloodshed and bodies left in the streets. The Mobb Deep-style gloom of “We Could Take it Outside” is convincing, but there’s something dispiriting about it; Busta Rhymes threatening to bash in your head was about as much fun as being juxed by Bugs Bunny.
In the second half of the ’90s, rap was approaching terminal masculinity. It might be hard to imagine today, when people like Young Thug casually wear dresses on their album covers and one of the biggest stars in hip-hop is out, but back then, Busta was the only male rap star willing to play with gender lines. Everyone in Hype Williams videos was dressed in bright colors, but Busta was unafraid not only to dress in bright colors but act like he was dressed in bright colors—he was the only one willing to dance, move, gyrate, smile wide enough for toothpaste commercials. His gender play was surface level, strictly vaudevillian—in fact, he’s shown a long and nasty streak of homophobia—but in 1997 he was the only one willing to get on stage in a dress next to Martha Stewart.